I sometimes doubt whether I have chosen the right field. Should I have become a scientist at all? That doubt has nothing to do with meteorology or climate science itself, which I find extremely interesting. My heart beats faster when I’ve discovered something new, when my PhD student has achieved great new research results, or when I explain something complicated to a wide audience. That’s not the problem at all. I have the best job there is.
My doubt is this: as a climate scientist I always warn of problems, but I do not contribute to the solution myself. I’m investigating how fast the ice caps are melting now that the earth is warming. I discuss rising sea levels, and the increase in drought, heat and flooding. Time and again, in lectures and interviews, I sketch a world that nobody wants, and I say that something really has to change.
But I never came up with anything to solve the climate problem. Okay, I don’t eat meat, fly little, buy sustainable, have solar panels, an electric bicycle and an electric car. But that’s different from big system solutions. That’s why I envy chemists inventing new batteries. To lawyers who keep governments to their agreements. To economists who make sustainable investment possible. To politicians who steer the world towards a greener future. They are the doers, I stand on the sidelines shouting that things will go wrong if they don’t do their best. Shouldn’t I use my knowledge to work on solutions, instead of determining how big the problem is?
I recently saw a good example of such solution-oriented, self-confident doers. A slick YouTube video from RethinkX, a think tank that focuses on technologies that are disrupting the current market at a rapid pace. Think of the internet that has reduced the cost of creating and distributing information to almost zero. In exactly the same way, according to RethinkX, we are in the midst of an energy revolution in which the cost of energy will be decimated in a relatively short time. Solar panels, wind turbines and batteries have been exponentially cheaper for some time now. There will come a time – that is about now – when the use of fossil fuels will no longer be economically rational.
So far nothing new. But the economics of renewable energy leads to interesting insights that are fundamentally different from our classical thinking in terms of surplus and scarcity. Think along: batteries are expensive, but necessary for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. You can opt for exactly as much solar and wind energy capacity as we need, but then you need a lot of batteries to store surpluses from a sunny or stormy day for a cloudy or windless period. That is expensive. You can also opt for so many solar panels and windmills that you don’t need batteries even in the darkest, windless winter month. That too is expensive. Somewhere in between the two extremes is a cost optimum. That optimum appears to lie with a network that can generate approximately four times as much electricity as the current one. In that situation you have the cheapest stable system that supplies sustainable power all year round, even during the darkest and most windless days.
The core of the revolution
Now the crux: such a system gives you far too much power for more than half of the year. At the moment that will be framed as a problem: Solar panels are turned off when there is an abundance of sun. But it’s no problem. It is precisely the core of the revolution. That energy is so abundantly available that there is a surplus for a large part of the year. Imagine what you can do with all that. It defies your imagination when you consider that we are on our way to a world with plenty of cheap energy.
That was the jubilation. The hurdles to get there are, of course, immense. Four times the current capacity of electricity. Where should all those solar panels and windmills come? The electricity system needs to be overhauled. And at the same time, we must not only make the current electricity demand more sustainable: there will be additional demand because we drive and heat with electricity. Nevertheless, it is good to look beyond these problems. There lies a hopeful perspective, beyond doubt.
An attentive reporter from this paper also gave me an uplifting look at my own doubts. The world needs storytellers too. They continue to explain how it works, warn about global warming, and show how it can be done. So once again: we must stop using fossil fuels as soon as possible. The alternative may well be a lot better.
Peter Kuipers Munneke is a glaciologist at Utrecht University and a weather forecaster at the NOS.
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